The dream of the 90s internet is still alive, if you look in the right angles.
More than 17 million Americans regularly use MapQuest, one of the first digital mapping websites long ago overtaken by Google and Apple, data from research firm Comscore shows. The Internet-era Go.com portal Go.com was shut down 20 years ago, but its spirit lives on in the “Go”, which is part of the web addresses of some Disney sites.
Ask Jeeves, a web search engine that started before Google, still has fans and people typing “Ask Jeeves a question” into Google searches.
You might scoff at AOL, but it’s still the 50th most popular website in the United States, according to figures from SimilarWeb. The virtual world of the early 2000s, Second Life, never disappeared and now has a second life as a proto-metaverse brand.
Some one-time online stars have lingered much longer than we expected, showing that it’s possible to build a life online long after stardom fades.
“These are almost cockroach characteristics,” said Ben Schott, a brand and advertising columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. “They are small enough and resilient enough that they cannot be killed.”
A comparison with scurrying bugs maybe not appear be a compliment. But there’s something heartwarming about pioneers who shaped the early internet, lost their cool and dominance, and eventually carved out a niche. They will never be as popular or powerful as they were a generation ago, but stale internet brands can still serve a fruitful purpose.
These brands have managed to stay alive through a combination of sluggishness, nostalgia, having produced a product that people like, digital prowess to make money, and quirks of the rickety internet. If today’s internet powers like Facebook and Pinterest also lose relevance, they could last for decades.
System1, which owns MapQuest and HowStuffWorks, among others, has a strategy of enticing people to its collection of digital properties through advertising pitch or other techniques, turning them into loyal users, and monetizing their clicks or other sales. It’s not far from the early 2000s web strategy of turning “eyeballs” into revenue.
Michael Blend, CEO and co-founder of System1, said his company has spent money on Internet advertising to attract people to MapQuest and has also improved its map features. A feature added since System1 bought MapQuest from Verizon in 2019, it lets delivery couriers plan long routes with many stops.
Blend said Gen X nostalgia or online marketing might convince people to give MapQuest a try once or twice, but the company wanted to make the site useful enough that they’d come back regularly. He also said that more than half of the people who use MapQuest are young enough that they may never have known it in its heyday.
Blend is proud that MapQuest has been around for so long. “There are plenty of internet brands that have come and gone and you never hear from them again,” he told me.
I don’t have a good explanation for the resilience of some ’90s Internet properties. People search for Ask Jeeves, even though its owner, the Internet conglomerate IAC/InterActiveCorp, gave up its English butler name in 2005 and stopped trying to compete with it more than a decade ago. Google search. The website now called Ask.com is primarily a compilation of entertainment and celebrity news.
A spokesperson for Disney, which formerly owned the Internet portal Go.com, was unable to explain why some of the company’s Internet sites still have Go’s fingerprints. (The Onion mocked Disney for this years ago.) In general, today’s websites are often built on top of the remnants of the old internet, such as a modern mansion built on the foundation of a 19th-century house.
Schott mentioned something I can’t get out of my head. He said when a once-beloved restaurant chain or industrial factory closes, the typical public reaction is grief for what people have lost. But Schott said when internet sites like Yahoo and Myspace collapse or die, it’s often brushed off as a joke.
“There’s a weird glee when tech companies fail, which I don’t think happens with other industries,” he said. “I’m not sure what that’s about.”
Maybe that’s starting to change. When Microsoft disabled its 27-year-old Internet Explorer web browser this month, the nostalgia poured out. As the internet gets older — and so do those of us who remember its early days — the more emotions we can feel for what came before it.